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OSHA kicks off trenching and excavation safety program

On Oct. 1, OSHA kicked off its National Emphasis Program on trenching and excavation safety. With the NEP comes certain changes that employers in South Carolina will want to be aware of. Employers will also want to review OSHA's Trenching and Excavation Quick Card, which lays out the basics of trenching safety.

Trenching and excavation work led to a total of 130 fatalities between 2011 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 80 percent of those fatalities occurred in the private construction industry, often taking place in industrial areas and at private residences. Furthermore, almost half occurred between 2015 and 2016, revealing a clear upward trend. OSHA has recently been issuing severe penalties for trenching safety violations to combat the surge.

With the NEP, OSHA's first step is to offer compliance assistance through its area and regional offices. The outreach period will last three months. Afterward, OSHA's compliance officers will conduct "drive-by inspections" of any sites where trenching and excavation activity is plainly to be seen. The officers will do so even in the absence of readily observed violations.

These NEP initiatives may conflict, legal experts say, with certain court decisions requiring OSHA to get an administrative warrant before conducting inspections. The warrants are granted in response to complaints or for sites selected on a neutral source's general administrative plan.

Nevertheless, employers should be proactive in ensuring the safety of their employees. If employees injure themselves in a trench through no fault of the employer, they can file workers' compensation claims and be covered for medical expenses and a percentage of lost income. However, a worker will need to report the incident to their employer and make their intentions known. A lawyer could assist with the filing process, even mounting an appeal if the claim is denied.

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